There were emotional scenes as the drivers were reunited with their families, with children and relatives running to embrace their loved ones at the airport in southeastern Şanlıurfa border province.
The drivers, who were held captive for 23 days, appeared in good health and said they had not been mistreated by the militants.
"They first read verses from the Quran and told us that we are free this morning and that we can call our families," one truck driver who was released said as he held his son in his arms. "We ate bread, cucumbers and slept in our trucks."
Drivers declined to answer questions on the 49 Turks still held in Iraq, including special forces soldiers, diplomats and children, who were seized in the northern city of Mosul by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants on June 11.
Two truck drivers told CNN Türk television that Turkish officials had advised them not to speak on the issue.
The 32 truckers were handed over to Turkey's consul general in Arbil on Thursday afternoon, Davutoğlu said at a news conference in Ankara. The drivers were greeted by Turkish officials in the predominantly Kurdish town of Makhmour before getting on a bus taking them to Arbil.
“They were handed over to our Arbil consul general 15-20 minutes ago. They are now on their way to the Arbil consulate,” he said at the news conference. They are in good health, except one who may need “special examination,” Davutoğlu said without elaborating.
“I would like to thank our [abducted] citizens for their patience and trust in our country,” he said.
The drivers were abducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on June 9 while they were carrying fuel oil to a thermal power plant in Mosul. Another 49 Turks were kidnapped on June 11 when ISIL seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul, including the Turkish consul. There was no word yet on their fate as of Thursday afternoon. Davutoğlu said the government was hoping to hear good news on the 49 people as soon as possible.
Prior to Davutoğlu's news conference, the drivers broke the news of their release to the Turkish media via phone while they were still in ISIL's company. A driver was speaking to the private NTV station, but sounds of shouting could be heard in the background and he had to hang up.
Serdar Bayrak, one of the 32 truck drivers, said ISIL militants informed the drivers that they would be released and told them to pack early Thursday morning.
“Our health is in good condition and we don't have any problems. After we packed our stuff, we were taken with a vehicle toward the Kurdish region,” Bayrak told the private Doğan news agency. He said ISIL was not releasing their trucks and added that he had not heard anything about the 49 Turks seized at the consulate.
The circumstances of the drivers' release were not immediately clear. There were reports that ISIL demanded ransom for the release of the truckers, allegedly $50,000 for each truck it had seized along with the drivers, but there was no official confirmation of such reports. Mosul's ISIL-appointed governor was involved in the bargaining, according to reports on Monday.
The government received criticism for its handling of the hostage crisis, with critics even accusing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of using the crisis as a means to bolster public support for his bid for the presidency in elections slated for Aug. 10. A court imposed a ban on reporting about the kidnappings soon after the crisis erupted, a move that sparked accusations from many circles that the government is pushing the incident out of the headlines in an attempt to avoid accountability.
Without mentioning the criticism, Davutoğlu said he was thankful to the Turkish public for its “sensitive stance.” He added that the government has rescued nationals held abroad in several circumstances, some of which are known by the public others that are not, over the past 4-5 years.
Davutoğlu said he couldn't sleep the previous night because he had received information Wednesday afternoon that there were “positive developments” regarding the truckers' situation, thanks to efforts undertaken by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT).
The Foreign Ministry made a statement on Wednesday, criticizing reports in the Turkish media suggesting that the timing of the release of the Turkish hostages would be used to attract sympathy from voters for the Turkish presidential election, which will be held on Aug. 10.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry called these reports “ugly and groundless,” stressing that Turkish government officials are working relentlessly, day and night, for the release of the hostages. “Our position on such issues is very clear. Nothing is more important than our citizens' well-being,” read the statement.
“We regret seeing such a sensitive issue concerning our nation's interests, and the families of those hostages are being subject to groundless claims,” the Foreign Ministry said.
Controversy around the hostage crisis
After a few days into the Mosul hostage taking, Prime Minister Erdoğan accused the media of publishing provocative reports on the situation and called on the media to cover the developments “without writing [or] talking too much.” Erdoğan justified the call with the claim that the media's reporting had endangered the hostages. Following Erdoğan's remarks, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç also urged the media not to provoke ISIL with its coverage. The Foreign Ministry has also released a statement saying that the Turks captured by ISIL were not hostages but Turkish citizens taken to an unknown location.
The Ankara 9th High Criminal Court issued a gag order just days after Erdoğan's remarks stating that "all kinds of print, visual and Internet media are banned from writing and commenting on the situation” until the Turkish citizens in the hands of ISIL are safely rescued.
The Foreign Ministry and MİT have been seriously criticized for turning a blind eye to the crisis on Turkey's doorstep. The Turkish leadership has been roundly condemned for its weak intelligence, short-sighted foreign policy vision and late realization of the radical threat. According to reports, the Mosul consulate had sent a report to Ankara prior to the seizure to inform the ministry of the dangerous situation.
The Foreign Ministry has been giving daily press briefings since the incident took place, but no new information has been released during these briefings.
The first signal for the release of hostages came from Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç on Monday. Arınç, speaking after a Cabinet meeting, said he hopes Turks who are being held captive in Mosul will return to Turkey during the month of Ramadan.
“We are working for their release as soon as possible and doing everything we can for their return to Turkey. I hope that we will meet our citizens sometime during Ramadan,” Arınç said.
Turkish authorities had earlier said the number of truck drivers held by ISIL was 31. They also declined to confirm a news report that one of the drivers managed to escape on his own soon after being abducted by ISIL.